A GROUP EXHIBITION in Memphis, Tenn., brings together a slate of mostly rising artists whose work explores notions of Blackness, space, place, and belonging. Tone Memphis, a Black arts nonprofit in Memphis, Tenn., is presenting “On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora.”

Organized by Larry Ossei-Mensah, the exhibition reflects the independent curator’s inveterate travels and constant engagement with artists across the United States.

 


KEVIN BRISCO, “I Was Full Grown Before I Knew I Came From A Broken Home,” 2016 (oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches). | © Kevin Brisco, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 

The concept for the show draws on two books, a new treatise and a classic: “Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life” by scholars Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson and Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” the novel about freedom and the quest for meaning and authenticity that follows the cross-country travels of two young men in post-war America.

Bronx, N.Y.-based Ossei-Mensah is showcasing contemporary works by 18 artists who express themselves in a variety of mediums. All of the art is for sale.

An installation of hanging hair beads that spells out Ebony in the iconic magazine’s signature red and white logo colors is by Mississippi-born, New York-based artist Felandus Thames. “Sojourn” (2021), Memphis artist Brittney Boyd Bullock‘s sculptural fiber art evokes an abstract landscape in marigold, sunny yellow, moss green, and chocolate brown. Memphis-born, Baltimore-based Brandon J. Donahue‘s “Basketball Bloom Series” repurposes deflated basketballs to create concentric layers of petals that form floral assemblages.

Memphis-born and raised, Kevin Brisco‘s painting “I Was Full Grown Before I Knew I Came From a Broken Home” (2016) depicts the familiar living room from the set of The Cosby Show.

Featured painters also include Baltimore-based Amani Lewis who hails from Columbia, Md.; Ashante Kindle, an MFA candidate at the University of Connecticut, originally from Clarksdale, Tenn.; and New Jersey-born Adrienne Elise Tarver, who splits her time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Atlanta.

Memphis native Frank Stewart, the New York-based photographer who documented Romare Bearden and for about five decades has traveled the world training his lens on jazz musicians, contributed a pair of black-and-white photographs. The striking images include a tight crop of Black bodies dancing on Juneteenth (1993) and an intimate diner scene titled “Smoke and the Lovers” (1992).

Photographic works by Memphis based Lester Merriwether; Memphis-born, New York-based Freddie Rankin II; and Jackson, Miss.-born D’Angelo Lovell Williams, who lives and works in New York, are also on view.

In a statement about his vision for the exhibition, Ossei-Mensah said: “The Black community has always made a way when there was no way. Black people, because we are a communal group, organically create space for ourselves to fellowship, thrive, survive, and aspire to new heights regardless of our immediate circumstance or the city they reside in.”

“The Black community has always made a way when there was no way. Black people, because we are a communal group, organically create space for ourselves to fellowship, thrive, survive, and aspire to new heights regardless of our immediate circumstance or the city they reside in.”
— Larry Ossei-Mensah


AMANI LEWIS, “Early From Yonder (Galatians 6:9),” 2020 (acrylic, glitter, pastel, digital collage on canvas, 58 x 72 inches). | © Amani Lewis, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 

GIVEN HIS SENTIMENT, TONE MEMPHIS is an ideal venue for the exhibition. A nexus of Black culture, creativity, and community located in the city’s historically Black Orange Mound neighborhood, the organization took time during the pandemic to refocus and rebrand itself.

Previously known as, “CLTV” (which stood for The Collective), the new name reflects the spectrum of Blackness and nonprofit’s interdisciplinary programming, across music, film, poetry, performance, dance, photography, and visual art. In addition to presenting exhibitions, Tone hosts concerts, film screenings, talks, and readings. The organization is also thinking more broadly about the community.

When Co-Founder and Executive Director Victoria Jones announced the new identity in May, she said, “Today, we reemerge as Tone. An evolved identity to grow an evolved vision for our people and our city. A vision of Memphis realizing and owning its undeniable ability to be a cultural beacon.”

Tone is invested in Orange Mound. The organization is the new co-owner with Unapologetic, a local record label and artist collective, of the former United Equipment Building. Tone and Unapologetic purchased the property for $400,000 in May 2020, with local and national grant funds.

A storied industrial property that dates to the 1950s, the building served as an animal feed mill. Although it’s been vacant for two decades, the building remains a visible beacon in the city standing 200-feet high. Sited in a commercial area, the acquisition includes the mill, an 80,000-square-foot warehouse, and several acres of land.

The arts organizations plan to convert the property to house Tone and Unapologetic, and provide 120 apartment or condominium residences, along with commercial space. Affordable housing and accessible leasing rates for Black-owned businesses and organizations are a priority.

“Today, we reemerge as Tone. An evolved identity to grow an evolved vision for our people and our city. A vision of Memphis realizing and owning its undeniable ability to be a cultural beacon.”
— Tone Memphis Co-Founder and Executive Director Victoria Jones


FRANK STEWART, “Juneteenth 93’,” 1993 (pigment Print, 30 x 40 inches), Edition 1 of 1. | © Frank Stewart, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 

Refusing to concede to the gentrification and outsider development that has transformed the culture and identity of countless Black neighborhoods and urban centers across the country, Tone seeking to preserve and better the community for the benefit of residents who already call the neighborhood home.

The project is called Orange Mound Tower. Musicians, a health and wellness coach, an animator/filmmaker, and a Black-owned coffee shop have already expressed interest in becoming commercial tenants, according to a report by Elle Perry in the Daily Memphian.

A new website describes the development as is “a new hub for Black business and innovation. A place where Black creatives and cultural organizations can live, collaborate, build, and perform amidst the monumental history and culture of Orange Mound, Memphis.” The groundbreaking is expected in 2022.

Shortly before “On the Road” opened, I spoke with Kimberly Jacobs, who was serving as Tone’s development director at the time, and M. Fraankie, the marketing and sales director, to learn more about the organization and plans for the exhibition. Tone had hosted a Juneteenth “Family Reunion” Celebration at Orange Mound Tower the previous weekend, the organization’s first event after more than a yearlong pause in programming.

I asked what the gathering was like. Fraankie, who is also a photographer with a couple works in the exhibition, said there was a cookout, concerts, DJs, Black vendors, and “phenomenal” artists. She guestimated there were more than 1,000 people in attendance—all kinds of Black people coming together for a common purpose, having a good time. “It was like a family reunion,” Fraankie said. The exhibition can be viewed through the same lens. CT

 

“On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora,” Curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, is on view at Tone Memphis, in Memphis, Tenn., from July 10-Sept. 18, 2021

Participating artists: Adrienne Elise Tarver, Amani Lewis, Amber Ahmad (Tone Curator), Ashante Kindle, Ashley Teamer, Brandon J. Donahue, Brittney Boyd Bullock, D’Angelo Lovell Williams, Felandus Thames, Frank Stewart, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Jonathan Payne, Kevin Brisco, Lawrence Matthews, Lester Merriweather, MadameFraankie (Tone Director of Marketing and Sales), TJ Dedeaux-Norris, and Ufuoma Essi.

 

FIND MORE about Tone Memphis and Orange Mound Tower

 


FELANDUS THAMES, Installation view of “Ebony,” 2021 (hair Beads, coated wire, aluminum, and fasteners and “two drops of Juju and sweat from field negro du-rag,” 76.5 x 96.5 x 30.25 inches). | © Felandus Thames, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


Installation view of “On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora,” Tone Memphis, Memphis, Tenn. (July 10-Sept. 18, 2021). | Courtesy Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


BRITTNEY BOYD BULLOCK, Installation view of “Sojourn,” 2021 (fiber, pipe cleaner, zip ties, sequins, beads, cord, twine, tulle, mylar, yarn, 2 x 4 feet). | © Brittney Boyd Bullock, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


FREDDIE RANKIN II, “Approximating an idea of completeness No.8,” 2018 (silver Gelatin photograph, 16 x 20 inches), Edition of 3. | © Freddie Rankin II, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 


AMBER AHMAD, “Scorpion & Frog,” 2021 (acrylic, polytab, wallpaper on birch panel, 4 x 6 feet). | © Amber Ahmad, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 


Installation view of “On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora,” Tone Memphis, Memphis, Tenn. (July 10-Sept. 18, 2021). | Courtesy Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


ADRIENNE ELISE TARVER, “The Shadow,” 2018 (oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches). | © Adrienne Elise Tarver, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 


BRANDON J. DONAHUE, Installation view of “Basketball Bloom (TRCC),” 2021 (Searched for and collected basketballs, shoestrings, 48 x 48 inches). | © Brandon J. Donahue, Courtesy of the artist and David Lusk Gallery, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


MADAMEFRAANKIE, “Weightless,” 2019 (enhanced matte digital photograph mounted on black beveled sintra with wood frame, 24 x 36 inches), 1 of 10. | © MadameFraankie, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 


Installation view of “On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora,” Tone Memphis, Memphis, Tenn. (July 10-Sept. 18, 2021). | Courtesy Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


JAMEA RICHMOND-EDWARDS, Installation view of “Cosmic Memories,” 2021 (acrylic, colored pencil, glitter, oil stick, fabric, and mixed media collage on canvas, 30 x 30 inches). | © Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


ASHANTE KINDLE, “Eve,” 2021 (acrylic on canvas, 36 inches diameter). | © Ashante Kindle, Courtesy the artist and Tone Memphis

 


Installation view of “On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora,” Tone Memphis, Memphis, Tenn. (July 10-Sept. 18, 2021). | Courtesy Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 


LAWRENCE MATTHEWS, “Flip,” 2019 (35 mm film negative, giclee print, pigment-based, 40 x 60 inches), Edition 2 of 3. | © Lawrence Matthews, Courtesy of Friends of the Brooks

 


D’ANGELO LOVELL WILLIAMS, “Untitled (Portrait),” 2017 (Pigment print, 24 x 30 inches). | © D’Angelo Lovell Williams, Courtesy Tone Memphis

 


Installation view of “On The Road: Chocolate Cities: Exploration of Space Across the Black Diaspora,” Tone Memphis, Memphis, Tenn. (July 10-Sept. 18, 2021). Shown, Center, LESTER MERRIWEATHER, “#BetterGardensandJungles” (series), 2018-2019. | Courtesy Tone Memphis, Photo by M. Fraankie

 

READ MORE about the development of Orange Mound Tower in Memphis magazine

READ MORE about Orange Mound, Memphis on Medium

 

BOOKSHELF
Curating the exhibition, Larry Ossei-Mensah was inspired by two books “Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life” by Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson and “On The Road” by Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac. Also consider, “Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City” by Brandi Thompson Summers and “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital” by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove.

 

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